Stay Awake

Advent Sunday 1

Year B

Isaiah 63:16-17,64:1,3-8
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:33-37

O that you would tear the heavens open and come down’ Is 63

Our Advent journey begins on a rousing note with a request so direct and graphic that it can almost shock us. This is no polite request to a God who operates somewhere in the background of our lives. This is the cry of the returned exiles who, buoyed up by the promise of a New Exodus, return to Jerusalem only to find it no longer offered sanctuary. The glory and beauty of Jerusalem is no more. The exiles felt like aliens in their own land. Their cry is urgent and heartfelt. And their cry is our cry too. The Israelites need and want God to intervene in their lives.

This sense of urgency and all that it stirs within us is our interpretative key to the readings for the First Sunday of Advent. The Gospel text from Mark 13 leaves us in no doubt as to how we are to begin Advent:

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come. It is like a man travelling abroad: he has gone from home, and left his servants in charge, each with his own task; and he has told the doorkeeper to stay awake. So stay awake, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming, evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn; if he comes unexpectedly, he must not find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’

In the five verses which form our Gospel we are urged to stay awake three times. If you have come to the liturgy a little lethargic, there is every chance that this will have woken you up. The hearers of Mark’s Gospel lived in a time of great uncertainty, their days marked by violence and threat. This level of threat probably meant that they were in a permanent state of alert. We know enough now about our physiology to recognise that our bodies suffer when the fight or flight response is triggered too often. So how are we to hear Mark’s words?

On a simple level I hear in the text an invitation to be open and ready to all the ways in which God will be revealed to me this Advent. I can neither control nor predict those ways, but I know for certain that they will happen. We have lived since March with a heightened state of alert and have had to accept a new way of living and moving in our world. Some of the ways in which try to stay safe have become habits for us. In our best moments we hold on and try to fix our eyes on the bigger picture. That bigger picture is a world where we are protected from Covid and can begin to piece together again the fabric of our lives. The hearers of Mark’s Gospel fixed their eyes on the bigger picture too: the Parousia. The Parousia promised that Christ would come again to the world to put right all that was wrong, unjust and broken. The hope enkindled in the promised return of Christ has inspired Christians through the ages. Each generation hears the call anew.

St Benedict in the Sixth Century knew the urgency of Christ’s call and promises too. When St Benedict writes his Rule he does so in the context of a collapsing world order and the uncertainty brought by various heresies. The Prologue to the Rule is full of language which rouses and encourages us to press onwards:

Let us get up then, at long last, for the Scriptures rouse us when they say: It is high time for us to wake from sleep (Rom 13:11). Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts. (Ps 94)

Rule of St Benedict, Prologue

There is a timeless quality to St Benedict’s writing and the urgency in his words seems very appropriate for us in Advent 2020. Throughout the Rule there is a strong conviction that although each individual monk is responsible for his spiritual journey, the search for God takes place with and in community. St Benedict knew the importance of mutual encouragement. In his chapter on the Sleeping Arrangements of the Monks he specifies that the monks sleep clothed so that they are ready ‘to arise with out delay when the signal is given; each will hasten to arrive at the Work of God before the others, yet with all dignity and decorum.’ St Benedict is under no illusions as to how hard it can be to get out of bed. He makes provision for this too: ‘On arising for the Work of God, they will quietly encourage each other, for the sleepy like to make excuses.’

So perhaps the invitation to us this Advent is to help each other, to quietly encourage, so that, TOGETHER, we can stay awake and be ready for Christ’s coming.